“May I see John’s records? I want to take another look at his placement test,” asked the fifth-grade teacher. My ears perked up and my heart leapt. I was so excited! A teacher wants to use the assessment data to inform his teaching practices, I thought. “I knew I made the right hiring decision!” I proudly assumed. My heart quickly plummeted to the floor after he asked, “Should we have accepted this student, considering his placement test results?”
I quickly realized the teacher had lost sight of our mission. The student had tested above grade level for years before experiencing a traumatic event which led to challenging behavior and poor academic performance. His placement test indicated a high aptitude for learning although his achievement level was lower than his grade level. This teacher had decades of experience working in a Christian school, however, in that moment he lacked a key ingredient found within flourishing school cultures—a learning orientation.
A learning orientation is a mental set that enables stakeholders to evaluate and recalibrate inputs and the outcomes, processes and policies required for growth. Research, including ACSI’s Flourishing Schools initiative, has found that a focus on outcomes is a key component of a learning orientation.
What is an Outcomes Focus?
The Flourishing School Culture data indicate that having an outcomes focus involves believing that “process doesn’t matter if it isn’t producing results, and change is distracting if it doesn’t lead to increases in student achievement” (Swaner, Dodds, and Lee 2021). What results are we hoping to achieve? We hope that our students will develop a biblical worldview and show God’s glory through their academic scholarship, stewardship of their time, talents, temple, and treasure, and engage their communities as transformational leaders. Identifying expected student outcomes and criterion for continuously measuring progress toward achievement of those outcomes is essential to success in achieving them for both the educator and the student.
Kingdom educators achieve their teaching and learning goals by maintaining an outcomes focus. Their instruction is aligned with the school’s overall mission to promote holistic development in each student by implementing innovative and responsive instructional strategies. It is important that we begin each year reviewing and orienting the entire learning community to the expected student outcomes (ESOs). As the writer of Proverbs exclaimed, “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint” (or perish as some translations recount) (Proverbs 29:18a). This is true for families, churches, and especially schools. Dr. Erin Wilcox, ACSI’s assistant vice president for Academic Services, shared the importance of ESOs, ESO examples, and ESO assessment tools in a prior blog post, “The Value of Expected Student Outcomes.” ESOs enable the learning community to identify, focus upon, measure, allocate resources for, and align people with time-related, achievable performance standards for academic and non-academic outcomes.
The identification of realistic outcomes empowers school teams with the capacity to be solution-oriented and see challenges or crises as an opportunity for improvement. We pray each year for enrollment growth and transformation in the lives of our stakeholders (students, families, faculty, board members, and the community at large) and often act surprised when God sends those opportunities in seed form. Studies indicate that an educator’s orientation toward professional learning is directly correlated to student achievement. For far too long, we’ve ignored the influence school culture has upon teachers’ expectations in addition to their willingness to learn and implement innovative instructional strategies (Brion 2021).
Another key to an outcomes focus is that it begins with a recognition that God is sovereign over our student selections and admissions. Our primary outcome is that our students are conformed to the image of Christ. Jesus grew holistically and pleased the Father (Luke 2:52); thus, our programs must be aimed at the same student outcomes. Researchers have found that students in preK-12 schools where team members lack an outcomes focus have disparities not just in literacy and social skills, but also in school readiness, long-term educational and health outcomes (e.g., increased high school dropout rates, increases in juvenile delinquency, higher teen pregnancy rates, poverty, mental health issues, and so forth), lower earnings, and ultimately family stability (Jeynes 2012; Wells 2017).
Hiring and Developing Staff
The scriptures inform us that a learning orientation is the disposition of a wise man who fears the Lord. This begins with a biblical worldview as we identify criteria used to recruit staff. Leaders intentionally create, change, and maintain school culture by identifying inputs necessary to achieve the outcomes of Christian education. We search the scriptures for characteristics of kingdom educators and write job announcements, job descriptions, employment forms, policies, and procedures that are designed to cast vision and screen unqualified candidates. As boards and owners cast vision throughout the onboarding process, adequate time should be provided to identify measurable standards and tools by which to assess student development in each domain (spiritual, social, emotional, cognitive, and physical).
When hiring for a learning orientation in general, and an outcomes focus in particular, the following dispositions and capacities should be considered:
- The willingness to view a student with a growth mindset (improvement is not only possible but inevitable).
- The readiness to seek and receive feedback from other team members to see a situation more fully.
- The ability to recognize that the components of our learning communities are interrelated (e.g., family dynamics, industry trends, global crises, teacher competency, standards, and their implementation all influence performance).
- The acknowledgment that there are multiple interventions that may be implemented to address a problem.
- The commitment to champion processes that may not be popular or easy.
A growth mindset is positively related to a learning orientation in that one assumes intelligence and ability can be improved (Vandewalle, Nerstad, and Dysvik 2019). As kingdom educators seek to understand why a student fails to attain ESOs, it is important that we seek goals-oriented feedback. We would agree that developing standards-aligned experiences that optimize student achievement and prepare our students for a successful transition to college and adult life, as disciples of Christ, is our highest priority. It is important that we establish professional learning communities that provide opportunities for collaboration and support our teachers’ transfer of learning from professional development events to targeted reflective practices in the classroom.
Brion, C. 2021. Culture: The link to learning transfer. Adult Learning DOI: 10451595211007926.
Jeynes, W.H. 2012. A meta-analysis on the effects and contributions of public, public charter, and religious schools on student outcomes. Peabody Journal of Education 87(3): 305-335.
Marzano, R. J., J.S. Marzano, and D. Pickering. 2003. Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Stronge, J. H. 2018. Qualities of effective teachers. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Swaner, L., C. Dodds, and M.H. Lee. 2021. Leadership for flourishing schools. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI.
Vandewalle, D., C.G. L. Nerstad, and A. Dysvik. 2019. Goal orientation: A review of the miles traveled and the miles to go. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 6:115-1
About the Author
Dr. Althea Penn is an author, educational consultant, and the executive director of The Shepherd’s Academy of Teaching Excellence. She is a professional development specialist with over thirty years of experience as an EE-12th grade educator and school administrator. She has authored several books, including The Christian Education Mandate; Firmly Rooted: Cultivating Faith Development in the Next Generation; and Equipping and Empowering Early Educators. She is married to her best friend and high school sweetheart. They are the parents of two beautiful daughters who are certified educators. You can usually find her curled up with a book or gardening with her grandchildren.